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School Board, DEDA to work together to sell Central High School property

The Duluth School Board has approved an agreement with the city's economic development arm in hopes it will improve the chances of selling the former Central High School property.

The Duluth School Board has approved an agreement with the city’s economic development arm in hopes it will improve the chances of selling the former Central High School property.
The board Tuesday night approved 7-0 a motion to partner with the Duluth Economic Development Authority on a small-area plan for the school site. The agreement entails splitting the cost of a $35,000 study that will ultimately be used to help again change the zoning of the property to make it legal to sell parcels of land as opposed to one giant chunk.
The nearly 80-acre property - listed at $13.7 million for the main school and the Secondary Technical Center - has been closed to students since 2011.
Rezoning to subdivide the property, said Kerry Leider, property and risk manager for the school district, would make buying land more attractive to developers. The district has entertained several prospective buyers since 2011, but there has been no formal purchase agreement of a nature that would be brought to the School Board for action, he said.
“Some (failed interest) came down to the fact that consideration was for the entire property and that $13.7 million price tag was putting it out of the reach of most developers,” Leider said.
The agreement with DEDA also stipulates that after a sale of a parcel of land, the district will reimburse the authority for half of the study. The study will include traffic, road, engineering and architectural research. DEDA is expected to vote on the agreement today. The agreement also lays out the possibility of other cooperative efforts between the district and DEDA, including the demolition of the school, improvements to infrastructure and creation of a tax-increment finance district.
Board member Art Johnston said he was concerned there was no interest in the property; the price is too high and that breaking the property into parcels and demolishing the school would be expensive without first having buyers.
“I want to see this as much as anybody, but we’re going down a line we shouldn’t be going down,” he said.
In a separate interview regarding the possible demolition of Central, Leider said DEDA could pay for the estimated
$1 million cost and be reimbursed once a sale is made. Neither the district nor DEDA has agreed to such terms, but Leider offered it as an example of an agreement.
Superintendent Bill Gronseth said many people have toured the site, but zoning and economic challenges have contributed to its failure to sell. But the city is growing, he said, and that means a need for housing.
“That’s what this small plan is all about,” he said. “How can it meet the growing need for housing but also add this property to the tax rolls?”
The zoning the district and DEDA will seek would allow for residential housing, along with businesses, office space, retail and educational space.    
The cost to maintain the former Central High School campus each of the past two years has been about $170,000. One of the Secondary Technical Center buildings is still used by facilities management, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency rented one STC building for six months after the 2012 flood. During the last year the school was open, operational expenses were about $322,400.
Member Annie Harala thanked the city and DEDA for being a part of the plan.
“I heard a lot on the campaign trail that no one is talking to each other,” she said. “This is proof we are working across government lines.”
The board also approved a new three-year integration and achievement plan to help desegregate Myers-Wilkins Elementary and raise student performance in various schools. A clay tile 100-year roof restoration project at Congdon Park Elementary along with masonry work also was approved for $814,000. Money is coming from the Red Plan fund. The school’s playground and field will be closed this summer while work is being completed.

Related Topics: SCHOOL BOARD
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